Kadner: Welcome to the state’s Bult Field
Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday unveiled a sign for Bult Field, which the state now owns. Businessman Jim Bult constructed the airport because he was tired of the state dragging its feet. | Phil Kadner/Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 8, 2014 4:00PM
Gov. Pat Quinn and elected leaders from throughout the Southland gathered Thursday to pay tribute to the vision of a wealthy businessman and a congressman who went to prison.
The wealthy businessman’s name now is on a plaque at the entrance to a state-owned airport.
The congressman’s name, Jesse Jackson Jr., never was even mentioned at the news conference.
The governor came out to Bult Field in Will County, which the state recently bought for $34 million, to announce that the Illinois Department of Transportation will be meeting with private developers, air carriers and potential airport tenants next month to plan the construction of the South Suburban Airport.
The runway and terminal for that airport eventually will be about a mile south of Bult Field, 28261 Kedzie Ave.
Bult Field was constructed in 2007 by Jim Bult, who made his fortune by launching one of the largest interstate waste-hauling firms in the nation at age 18.
Bult got tired of the decadeslong battle to construct an airport near Peotone, so he decided to build his own small airfield in the footprint of the proposed South Suburban Airport.
The state could have stopped him, but it didn’t. Will County could have stopped him, but it didn’t.
While lots of people paid lip service to the need for an airport and their desire to “get the job done,” Bult just up and did it on his own.
“I got tired of waiting for the state,” he said.
So instead of spending $2 million to acquire the property more than a decade ago, the state paid Bult $34 million for his airport, which includes his private residence.
And now the state operates the airfield, which the governor contends will operate one day in tandem with the South Suburban Airport.
Quinn, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, Will County Executive Larry Walsh and many others were on hand to pat themselves on the back for moving the project forward.
Quinn talked about the vision needed to provide jobs in the future.
And he unveiled a plaque with the words “Bult Field, Future Site of the South Suburban Airport” on it.
But the only reason the airport still is being discussed, the only reason the governor can use it as a stop on his campaign tour, is that Congressman Jackson kept the project alive.
It was Jackson who came up with the idea of a public-private partnership to develop the airport when former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley made off with every federal dollar available for building airports in this country.
Those billions of dollars are being used to expand O’Hare International Airport, even though the Federal Aviation Administration said years ago that would be a bad idea and analysts to this day question whether it will substantially increase air traffic at O’Hare or reduce flight delays.
The idea of a public-private partnership was scoffed at by many because no major airport in the country had been constructed in that way, although it was common in Europe.
Daley chided Jackson, challenging him to come up with a developer willing to build the thing.
Jackson found one. And then the battle began between Will County and the suburbs in south Cook County over control of the airport.
Jackson had formed the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission to act as the governing body for the airport, Will County towns near the site such as Crete, Monee and Peotone refused to join, and the FAA said that without a regional consensus, it never would approve the project.
The fact that never before in its history had the FAA required a “regional consensus” to build an airport seemed to bother almost no one.
Quinn ended the infighting between local governments that had stymied construction of the airport by passing legislation that allowed the state to take control of it.
Once that decision finally was made, Will County and the south Cook County suburbs in the Jackson coalition acknowledged the inevitable.
If they wanted a voice in the project, if they didn’t want to be left out of a potential financial bonanza, they had to smile, shake hands and work together.
And they all stood together Thursday in the field of dreams that Bult constructed, in a large hall separated only by a wall from the Bult family residence.
Bult pays rent to the state to remain in his home but eventually will leave, at which point the state may rent out the bedrooms to pilots flying into the general aviation airport.
The state already runs the airport, checking pilots in and out, giving them a place to arrange flight plans and providing meeting rooms on site.
Someday soon it may act as the centerpiece for the future South Suburban Airport, a location where airline executives, construction contractors, developers and investors can fly in and out while inspecting the site.
If that airport ever is constructed, Bult would continue operating as a general aviation field, and its 500-foot runway someday could be expanded to 1,000 feet and become the second runway, running parallel to the inaugural South Suburban Airport runway.
A lot of politicians gave themselves credit Thursday for pushing the airport forward, claiming it was going to happen, but the only reason the project still is alive was because of Jackson’s single-minded, obsessive determination to get it built.
There remain many skeptics who note that a third airport has been talked about for 40 years now.
Bult is among that group. He was not present Thursday but had texted me earlier that he believes the “political will” is lacking.
Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for governor, has said that he has not decided where he stands on the project and wants to review all of the plans if elected.
I asked Quinn about Rauner’s statement, and he made a joke of it, saying Rauner won’t get the opportunity to review anything because he’s not going to get elected in November.
I happen to believe a candidate for governor ought to be able to say where he stands on a project this big and actually demonstrate he has bothered to study the issue.
Bult knew what he wanted. That’s why his airport exists.